Lectors for Pentecost Sunday probably do a little more practice than usual so that they won’t trip over the names of the cities and provinces listed by Luke in Acts 2. Those names belong to the Jewish diaspora—from Rome in the West to Arabia in the East, with points both north (Pontus) and south (Libya). Traditional commentators like to contrast that geographical list with the Genesis account of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11), since in Acts there is universal intelligibility while in Genesis there is, well, babble. Luke’s larger point is that everyone in the Jewish world was capable of hearing this new Good News even if its accent pointed to Galilee.
This passage in Acts reminds us that the Christian message is always subject to the limits of human language. When I was a high school student many decades ago, the nuns at my school brought in a Jesuit missionary who worked in the Arctic. Among his other projects, he translated some of the New Testament into the native language of the Inuit Peoples. At the time I was far more taken with his account of traveling to mission stations on a dogsled. It was only much later that it struck me how difficult his translation work must have been. How does one explain the Eucharistic bread and wine in a culture that knows nothing of wheat or grapes? What does a Good Shepherd look like in a world of hunter-gatherers? And what words are available for verdant pastures in a language that developed where there is only snow?
The puzzles evoked in my mind by this Jesuit missionary have remained with me ever since. The difficulty of translating the Gospel is far deeper than finding linguistic equivalences. The Pentecost narrative glitters with newness, excitement, and strangeness. When the disciples began speaking in “strange languages,” some wondered whether they weren’t drunk (Acts 2:13). Today’s Pentecost atmosphere is one of familiarity rather than newness, and the familiarity breeds not contempt but boredom. The late Walker Percy once wrote that the Christian vocabulary had been worn down like old poker chips. We have all heard the words and are pretty sure we know what they mean, but do we?
The Christian message is filled with what the late Karl Rahner called Urwortes—words too strong to be captured by a synonym or paraphrase. In The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Louis Wilken noted how these distinctive Christian words first made their way into the culture of late antiquity and radically changed it—words like “grace” and “mercy” and “forgiveness.” Today, that vocabulary is so common—and used so indiscriminately—that much of its force has been lost.
So how can we rescue these words from banality? One way might be to say “mercy” and “forgiveness” less often, or less casually, and to do more forgiving, practice more mercy. As a word, “peace” is a cliché, but peacemakers are prophetic. “Combatting poverty” is a slogan because poverty (like combat) has become an abstraction for many of us. The Bible doesn’t say much about “poverty,” but has plenty to say about the poor: it tells us, for example, that helping a poor person is a sign of salvation (see Matthew 25). The Gospels become fully intelligible as texts only to those committed to living the gospel. Only reading the words of the gospel is like looking at a score of Mozart’s music instead of listening to it.
Today there is much talk among Catholics about the “new evangelization.” Every year there are more books and classes and conferences devoted to the subject. Some of these produce useful ideas and no doubt they are motivated by good intentions, but they also produce a lot of moribund church-speak gussied up with biblical texts. The best of the new evangelization is really the old evangelization: hospitable parishes, soup kitchens, loving hospices, small groups of Vincent de Paul visitors, religious and lay communities, etc. These are doers of the Word and not hearers only.
The great French worker priest, Abbé Loew, once spoke of preaching on a street corner in Marseilles to a largely indifferent crowd of workers near the docks. Someone in the crowd shouted that he wanted to hear less of Christianity but was very interested in meeting a real Christian. That heckler inadvertently put his finger on the essence of evangelization.